How long does it take to get a 333 Exemption? What do drone pilots really think about regulations—and are they following them? Have you ever been approached by law enforcement?
UAV Coach conducted a survey to gauge how drone pilots who are flying commercially—or who are interested in doing so—feel about these and many other questions. The survey was conducted over 30 days in March and April 2016, and the sample size is significant—1530 individuals participated, and they didn’t receive any compensation. UAV Coach has published the results and has generously made them available to the public.
Every data nugget is interesting (here are the complete results), but there are a few big standouts.
The Big Question: Wait for Part 107 or Apply for a 333 Exemption
The survey results are a great follow-up to Skyward CTO X’s article “Commercial Drone Operations: Wait for Part 107 or Get a 333?” We’ve heard from so many companies and individuals who are wrestling with their choices:
- Operate without permission from the FAA (which is illegal)
- Apply for a 333 Exemption from the FAA (which can take months)
- Wait for the FAA to finalize Part 107 (which is supposed to happen sometime this year, but we’re not sure when)
The survey respondents are fairly closely split:
According to the data, 52% of 333 Exemption petitioners have had to wait at least five months to receive their exemptions. Interestingly, that’s the same percentage of respondents who aren’t following, or who don’t plan to follow, the 333 Exemption’s rule that pilots in command must have a pilot’s license. But, according to X’s article, this is a requirement that’s likely to change with Part 107 anyway. The survey results support what we’ve heard: Commercial drone operators find the current regulatory landscape challenging, and some are ignoring regulations altogether.
Commercial Drone Insurance
Given that the survey focused on those flying commercially, or with plans to do so, we found it surprising that a whopping 81% of respondents (1237 drone pilots) do not have drone insurance. And 50% of respondents said they don’t plan on buying it at all. This begs the question: How serious are those 765 drone pilots about operating commercially? Now, it’s likely that a certain number of hobbyists responded to the survey, which would account for a certain portion. But if you are operating commercially, insurance is a must. From our conversations with commercial drone operators in a variety of industries (construction, film & television, telecommunications), the vast majority of clients require operators to have liability insurance at minimum.
Commercial UAV insurance is a way of showing potential clients that you’re serious, you know what you’re doing, and you understand how to operate as a professional. Insurance is standard in across many industries. For example, many people would refuse to hire a contractor to work on a house or a doctor to perform a surgery unless those professionals carried insurance.
In addition, commercial-grade drones are a major investment for any business, but especially for startups and sole proprietors. Insurance is one of the most straightforward ways to protect your assets and ensure business continuity. The 18% of survey respondents who have at least liability insurance have a distinct competitive advantage when it comes to marketing their services and gaining clients. Skyward doesn’t sell, broker, or underwrite UAV insurance, but we strongly encourage all commercial operators to carry at least liability insurance. If you’re considering UAV insurance, check out our checklist, 5 Expert Tips to Save on Drone Insurance.
What’s a COA?
Also concerning: 38% of respondents don’t know what a COA is. That’s both an operational and a safety problem, because the Blanket COA (Certificate of Waiver or Authorization) spells out the airspace that commercial drone operators in the U.S. are allowed to fly in. At the end of the day, the point of the COA is to help drone pilots avoid dense, dangerous, and high-traffic airspace. The Skyward Airspace Map reflects those rules for U.S. airspace, showing 333 Exemption holders where they’re clear to fly under their Blanket COA.
The Blanket COA specifically prohibits flights in certain types of airspace, such as areas surrounding airports and Special Flight Rules Areas. Flights may still be possible in those areas, but operators are required to apply for a Civil COA from the FAA, so that regulators and other aircraft know what to expect. Conducting an illegal flight in one of these areas is extremely dangerous and presents the potential for enormous business liability.
COA is an authorization issued by the Air Traffic Organization to a public operator for a specific [UAV] activity. After a complete application is submitted, FAA conducts a comprehensive operational and technical review. If necessary, provisions or limitations may be imposed as part of the approval to ensure the UA can operate safely with other airspace users. In most cases, FAA will provide a formal response within 60 days from the time a completed application is submitted.
To better support the needs of our customers, FAA deployed a web-based application system. The UAS COA Online System provides applicants with an electronic method of requesting a COA. Applicants will need to obtain an account in order to access the online system.
At Skyward, we support commercial drone operations at every stage and size. It seems clear that entrepreneurs and business leaders who invest early in knowledge, a workflow that supports regulatory compliance, insurance, and well-trained pilots have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. And, if these results are an accurate representation of the rest of the industry, those people are a minority of commercial drone operators.
*All images above come courtesy of UAV Coach.